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Doctor Who's Under the Lake splits Reg scribes: This Alien homage thing – good or bad?

'I've not seen tech on Earth like this before'

By Kelly Fiveash, 3 Oct 2015


Gavin says:

I know there's something wrong with Doctor Who – Under the Lake, but it hits me only at the end.

It isn’t the standard sci-fi set up of humans stranded in isolated and hostile setting – scientific/industrial/military facility/hotel/forest. Nor that said humans are being stalked by an unseen, psychopathic alien presence.

Or that those humans span a template lineup of powerful woman, blue-collar grunts (no offence) and a yuppie servant to a sinister corporation.

What really strikes me is that, rather like a scientist on a deep-water oil-drilling facility of the future, I'm immersed.

The final scene of an eyeless Doctor spinning in the cold waters sent from the past where something has gone horribly wrong is a shock, not only because it's an eyeless Doctor, but also because it's the end of the episode.

I'm unprepared for this ending. What? Time up, and no conclusion? How did that happen?

This is a first for a regular, non-series opener or final or special since Doctor Who rebooted in 2005 with the ninth Time Lord.

Doctor Who's writers have had an epiphany: their audience aren’t hopeless victims of the 146-character-driven, instant-gratification Facebook culture.

In fact, members of the Who audience are capable of keeping a storyline in their heads for a week and will tune in again to catch the exciting next instalment.

This is more like Doctor Who of old: the four-part, month-long, carefully crafted to a climax approach with stories, characters and journeys able to breathe and build.

Ah yes, the days of hiding behind the sofa.

'It's impossible, it's evil, it's astonishing and I want to kiss it to death.'

It’s difficult to escape the powerful gravitational force of science-fiction totems like Alien, Aliens, Predator, The Thing and Event Horizon.

Too many films and TV dramas think they are referencing them when they are actually just repeating them – movies that, in turn, are really actually copying horror films.

You can’t do a cut and paste job; you must bring something fresh to the familiar set up. Telling the familiar story in a new way is where many fail.

That’s where Doctor Who’s The Waters of Mars and Kill the Moon failed: those stories galloped along breathlessly with lots of running around and waving of the sonic screwdriver to deliver the necessary pay-off within its single episode timeslot.

Under the Lake doesn’t make this mistake. Rather, by stretching the story out over two parts, the writers allow us and them time to explore familiar components and stumble down dead ends.

Doctor Who – Under the Lake. Pic credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake. Pic credit: BBC

Paying his dues to this sci-fi temple, and with a nod to the audience, the Doctor makes a crack about nut allergies.

What follows is an all-together slower paced and more finely crafted piece of storytelling compared to recent years’ Doctor Who – and that’s why it works.

There is a reference to contemporary reality: Oculus Rift-style Virtual Reality gear used to pilot the remote sub? Also, again, we see the Doctor's wearable tech. All of which means no sonic screwdriver to do some crazily implausible piece of hokum science-scanning of the ghosts.

The Doctor/Clara relationship gets time to breathe, too. She's gung-ho; while he's concerned for her safety: a set up pointing to something bad coming. And indeed it arrives with their separation by doors and water and farewell waves.

The relay race down the corridors to lure the “ghosts” into the Faraday cage is actually a pulse raiser because it doesn’t go to plan, as it might have in earlier episodes. The addition of a Clara hologram provides light-hearted relief that soon dissolves when the Doctor enters the Faraday cage.

Throughout this episode the Doctor, Clara and the mining facility's crew return repeatedly to the mysterious alien ship: don’t they know what they are doing? Don’t go in there. And DON’T open that animation chamber.

The atmosphere inside the Drum underwater base isn’t some cliché horror house: this is warm, reasonably inviting and cosy with its low lighting – but threatening, nonetheless. There is new mood music, too: sinister electronica for that eye-popping last scene.

If the Who writers can keep this up, I won’t just look forward to tuning into next week’s conclusion to this two-parter; I’ll actively look forward to future episodes, too.

Jennifer says:

Under the Lake needs to deliver proof that Earthbound episodes can live up to Steven Moffat's Season 9 two-part, full off-world action opener. And indeed it starts in predictably spooky fashion with a biggish cast of humans to entertain the Doctor.

Pritchard is clearly marked for death from the outset. Number one rule of Doctor Who: thou shalt not put corporate interests before people. And with another fatality before the opening credits, this is clearly not going to be one of those “everyone lives” episodes.

Clara's demands for monsters and adventures shows she clearly isn't following the plot. Spooky underwater base, what did she expect? Another party? The Doctor is already better written this season, but Miss Goody Two Shoes is not so much companion as accessory.

Under the Lake teases viewers with a puzzle that we think we can solve: Faraday cage, ghosts that cannot come out in artificial daytime and can only handle metal objects – surely we can work it out. But then the rug is abruptly pulled out as the Doctor declares “they are ghosts!”

Doctor Who – Under the Lake. Image credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake. Pic credit: BBC

Pritchard nonetheless takes a good 20 minutes to cark it, before the danger factor ramps up. Clever ghosts who send Morse Code are a lot scarier than mindless, zombie-like spooks. The catch-a-ghost caper is good silly fun, but is disappointingly punctuated by the return of the goddam sonic sunglasses.

'A song you can't stop humming, even after you die.'

In the last couple of episodes Peter Capaldi didn’t do much running about, but his Indiana Jones-style dive under the door proves he can move when he needs to. But much more welcome is the thought of Clara being left behind for a bit while the Time Lord zips back to the past to sort things out without her incessant quips.

The ghost Doctor is a good cliffhanger of the sort we’re going to have to get used to this season, but come on ... We KNOW he’s not dead – just like we knew Missy wasn’t dead, or Clara or even the TARDIS. Right? RIGHT?!

Kelly says:

Alien! Homage! For the win?

Well, no, not quite. The first episode of this second two-parter in Season 9 of Doctor Who draws appropriate terror from at least one of the characters (Cass, played by Sophie Stone), who is spooked by the sight of two ghost-like figures rushing towards the crew in the opening minutes of Under the Lake.

The horror is heightened in classic Hollywood-style by the reveal that one of their own (Captain Moran, played by Colin McFarlane) has "turned" not long after a craft of "UNKNOWN ORIGIN" is stupidly brought on board The Drum – an underwater mining facility, complete with its own lead-lined Faraday cage.

But while the writing in this ep from Toby Whithouse – who, among other Doctor Who scripts, penned The Vampires of Venice and A Town Called Mercy – is agreeably strong, it's let down by the performances, as well as its inability to distinguish enough from the excellent Alien movie that it is apeing.

Under the Lake, despite its promise, also lacks enough jeopardy for me to really care about what will happen next.

Doctor Who – Under the Lake. Image credit: BBC

Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake. Pic credit: BBC

And I say this even as we see, in the final scene, a strange figure floating through the dark depths of the murky waters surrounding the mining facility, only to be revealed as a ghostly Doctor, his eyes seemingly removed with a melon spoon. It's worth noting that this slow dawning horror build is a homage to another great movie: Deep Blue Sea – a film that is hard to beat for pure entertainment value.

If we don't have Clara being eaten by a bad ass, super-intelligent shark by the second part of this particular story, though, then I – for one – will be bitterly disappointed.

'Put the handbrake on.'

But back to the unashamedly I Heart Alien moments peppered throughout this episode. From the evil corporation Vector Petroleum and its slimy, not-to-be-trusted-with-your-gran rep Pritchard, all the way to the dramatic computer countdown that warns of an imminent disaster on board the facility. While Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece offers a race against the ship automatically destructing; Daniel O'Hara's Under the Lake floods the base to keep the nuclear reactor (which powers the "trillion dollars-worth" of mining equipment) cool. Obviously.

Which neatly brings me to the tech used in this episode: VR controls, Wi-Fi, sonic specs ... Ah, if only Steven Moffat had been sealed inside a Faraday cage while he developed the story arc for this series. At least then we may have been spared those truly awful sunnies. ®

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